Over the past day and a half, I've gotten bunches of emails and tweets all asking the same questions: Had I read the Wall Street Journal story? What about the Corporate Counsel piece? Is the billable hour really dead? What do you have to say?
Here's what I have to say:
Come on in. The water's fine. What took you so long?
(Our firm, Shepherd Law Group, completely abandoned hourly billing nearly three years ago. We haven't billed — or even tracked — a single hour since 2006.)
In fact, the billable hour isn't dead (yet), but you're forgiven if you thought this had happened based on what you read Monday. Quick recap: The front page of The Wall Street Journal had a story called "'Billable Hour' Under Attack" (subscription possibly required). The story was written by Nathan Koppel and Ashby Jones, who wonderfully cover the Journal's legal beat. It's a great piece (although I have no idea why "billable hour" is in quotes in the headline). They report on the efforts of companies like Pfizer, Cisco Systems, and American Express to rein in legal spending by moving work away from hourly billing and into fixed-price arrangements. They write:
The companies are ditching the hourly structure — which critics complain offers law firms an incentive to rack up bigger bills — in favor of flat-fee contracts. One survey found an increase of more than 50% this year in corporate spending on alternatives to the traditional hourly-fee model.
Make sure you also watch the video sidebar with an interview of Amy Schulman, Pfizer's general counsel (it's about three minutes):
Also Monday, Corporate Counsel magazine ran a piece called "Two Veteran Lawyers Say Now Is the Time for Fixed Fees." WilmerHale lawyers William Lee and Benjamin Heineman wrote it (I hope they didn't suggest the title). In it, the veteran lawyers decry the billable hour and trumpet the benefits of fixed prices:
For in-house counsel facing tremendous budgetary pressures, the fixed fee addresses the problems caused by the hourly rate, such as unpredictability, high costs divorced from actual value and, most importantly, the maddening law firm definition of "productivity" — defined as more lawyers and more hours per matter.
Both articles are steps forward in the war on the legacy systems and guild mentality entrenched in most law firms and reflected in the billable-hour business model. But don't think for a moment that this is the end of the billable hour, or even the beginning of the end. But it is — to paraphrase Churchill — perhaps, the end of the beginning.
As I've often said, the issue is not about invoicing methods. It's much deeper than that. We're talking about changing the dominant business model of an entire industry, and that's not going to be done with a couple of articles. In fact, these two articles show how far we have to go.
Let me explain: There are three basic concepts that are at the root of misunderstanding about how the law-firm model works. They are cost, profit, and price.
- Cost. No customer anywhere gives a flying something through a rolling doughnut what a law firm's costs are. That's the firm's problem. Think about it: have you ever gone to a store to buy something and wondered about the retailer's costs? Of course not. Yet when you read the veteran lawyers' article in Corporate Counsel, costs are about the only thing they talk about. Clients don't care about whether you can reduce your costs, boys.
- Profit. Profit is what's left for a firm after you subtract cost from revenue. A customer shouldn't really care about your profits, other than having a vague understanding that a vendor needs to make profits (eventually) to justify being in business in the first place. Beyond that, though, the customer doesn't care. In fact, there's no earthly reason why the customer should even know what your profits are. It might be different if you were publicly traded, but no American law firms are. It's ironic that large law firms voluntarily self-report their profits (and more importantly, their profits per partner) and then have clients complain about the firms' profit margins. When you listen to the Journal's video of Pfizer's Schulman, notice how many times she refers disparagingly to law firms' profit margins. ("You're going to have to get used to making less money.")
- Price. And what is price? Get ready to write this down: Price is simply the measurement of something's value to a customer. It's as simple as that. It has nothing to do with profit. It has nothing to do with cost. The price of anything is the value that thing has to a particular customer at a particular time. Anyone who tells you otherwise needs to go audit Economics 101 at the local community college.
Read what the Wilmer veterans have to say about cost:
As in all business, a total price for a matter or a book of business is built up from costs (and, at times, also derived from the significance of the matter). One of the most important issues in setting fixed fees is distinguishing between a law firm's actual costs (which firms see), and the actual costs, plus profit margins for the partners (which is what clients see in a firm's bills). A second, related problem is that the history of costs to the company may be an imperfect guide. Past bills are an aggregation of hourly rates (plus out-of-pocket costs), which may reflect inefficiencies.
Huh? No, fellas. The price depends on only one thing: the amount the customer will pay at that time. You can prattle on all you want about costs and budgets and efficiencies and inefficiencies, but it doesn't matter a whit. It's up to you to set a price that is less than or equal to the value the client places on your service. If you do, you'll be hired for the job. If the value to the client is high enough, you should be able to charge enough so that your revenue exceeds your costs, giving you a profit. But don't expect your client to care about your costs or your profits — that's not their job.
Both articles talk more about controlling costs and lowering law firms' profit margins. They don't talk about increasing value to the client. To really change the system, value — not costs — must lead pricing. Then firms won't have any use for timesheets.
As I said, it's the end of the beginning. But there's a long way to go.